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Independent voters are few in number, influential in close elections – and hard for campaigns to reach

Julio Borquez, University of Michigan, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

As the 2024 campaign cycle unfolds, campaign strategists, pollsters and political scientists have been closely watching independent voters.

The year began with a January 2024 Gallup report that 43% of Americans identify as political independents – regardless of whether they are registered to vote as a member of one party or the other. Various media outlets responded with proclamations that “independent voters dominate U.S.” and descriptions of how Joe Biden and Donald Trump are “on the hunt” for support from independents. Other publications speculated more generally about how the apparently large number of independents could shape the 2024 electoral landscape, because it may be hard to predict how they will vote.

That landscape points to a very close presidential election, one that will likely be decided by very small margins in a handful of swing states. A primary task for both the Biden and Trump campaigns will be to mobilize their bases and maximize turnout among their most ardent supporters. But those bases will probably not be enough to ensure victory for either candidate. Both candidates will seek to convince voters who are still “in play” – namely, independent voters.

Every new development on the campaign trail may spark questions about independents: Some of the early media punditry about Trump’s felony convictions in New York have included indications of how the verdict might shift independent voters away from Trump.

It appears that independents are important – including to political science scholars like me. But why, really?

For one thing, independents are important because there sometimes seems to be a lot of them. But that’s a point of contention among academics and campaign professionals.

 

Gallup’s January 2024 figure of 43% of the electorate identifying as independent was based on responses to a single survey question. Many survey operations, including Gallup, pose a follow-up question to self-described independents, asking whether they ever feel closer or “lean” toward the Democratic or Republican parties. Many independents will admit to leaning toward a party, leaving a much smaller number of “pure” independents. By this measure, Gallup’s estimate of independents went from 43% down to 12% of the U.S. electorate.

But even that small proportion can have an outsize difference in a country that selects a president through the Electoral College: In 2020, swing-state margins were much less than 12 percentage points. And polls indicate that Biden and Trump are now essentially tied in most 2024 swing states. So changes in preference among even very small blocs of independents may be critical to the election’s outcome.

The most recent New York Times/Siena College poll, with interviews conducted from April 28 to May 9, 2024, included dedicated state-level surveys in six swing states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It found that Trump enjoys comfortable leads over Biden among independents in Nevada and Georgia but that the candidates are essentially tied in the other swing states.

It also found that double-digit percentages of independents support independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., most notably 20% of independents in Pennsylvania. Of course, there remains the question of whether Kennedy will actually appear on the ballots of these swing states; as of June 1, he is confirmed to appear only in Michigan. If Kennedy is not on the ballot in November, his present supporters will have to choose someone else – or choose not to vote at all.

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